“CS is a difficult game at a high level and it is the state of the mind of the players that decides the games.” - Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo in Duncan “Thorin” Sheild’s Reflections interview
Since coming off their BLAST diet earlier this year, Astralis have attended three lans: ECS Season 7 Finals, ESL Proleague Season 9 Finals, and ESL One Cologne. FURIA eliminated them in the group stages of ECS Season 7 Finals, NRG and Liquid beat them at EPL Season 9 Finals. Vitality knocked them out in the semifinals of ESL One Cologne. Since their return to the proper CS:GO circuit, one thing is clear. Astralis have missed their reign of terror.
Historical Reigns of Terror
Every all-time great team goes through three phases. The first is the rise up where they learn and hone their play that will one day dominate the world. The second is their era. In this period, they are the best team in the world and they define the meta. The third is what I call “the reign of terror.” This is when the all-time great team falls from the top spot as the other competitors try to drag them down from the throne.
The reason I call it the reign of terror is because this is when two intangibles come into play of the all-time great team. The first is the irrational confidence that the number one teams has built into themselves. Their era has instilled in them a belief that they can beat anyone at any moment regardless of circumstance. The second is the fear they have instilled into their opponents.
This fear is justified. The number one team beat the rest of the world for a prolonged period of time and the constant victories will build up a psychological edge. Even for up-and-coming teams that have never played against the best before, they usually have an inherent fear when faced with an era defining team as they have idolized and studied their play.
We’ve seen this reign of terror through various different lineups in CS:GO history. NiP’s era ended in 2013, but there was an aura of greatness surrounding the original five that continued through 2014. There was something ineffable about them that people could only describe as magic. This magical quality eventually got them their first and only Major victory at ESL One Cologne 2014.
Fnatic’s reign of terror lasted from ESL One Cologne to DreamHack Cluj-Napoca. At ESL One Cologne, Fnatic weren’t the dominant team that had created an era. They were losing ground at the time. At FACEIT Stage 2 Finals, they lost to Cloud9 in the semifinals. TSM was their kryptonite in the head-to-head matchup. Virtus.Pro returned to power and EnVyUs made a roster change to try to overtake Fnatic. ESL One Cologne wasn’t a dominant win for Fnatic, but it was their most magical. They pulled out all of the intangibles: confidence plays, the famous tactical pauses, and gritty determination. They stopped the Virtus.Plow dead in its tracks and broke Kenny “KennyS” Schrub in the finals.
The Psychological Edge
There is no stat you can point to that can explain it’s impact or importance. However there is anecdotal evidence of it’s existence. Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo described this psychological phenomenon in his Reflections interviews with Thorin.
In the interview, Thorin asked FalleN about the late 2015 to early 2016 period. During this period Luminosity Gaming consistently lost finals. They lost FACEIT Stage 3 Finals to Fnatic, DreamHack Leipzig to Na`Vi, and IEM Katowice to Fnatic again. FalleN explained the nerves that were in play,
“We were getting nervous in those games. People would be over communicating, people would be calling over me, even myself.”
Soon after this period though, FalleN and his squad evolved. They no longer choked in the big pressure moments, but instead became some of the most renowned big game players we’ve seen in CS:GO history. FalleN described how it was like being on the choking side of the equation. In this first quote, FalleN talked about the damage the wrong state of mind could bring,
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“In those clutch situations you have to think of everything so fast that if you aren’t in your best state of mind...I’ve been in that kind of situation where you know what you’re doing is wrong, but you proceed to do it. Even if you’re brain is saying ‘This isn’t what you should be doing.’ you just go for the kill and hope for the best. This state of mind isn’t something you want in Counter-Strike at all. It’s not the state of mind that will give you trophies.”
He then described how it was like playing when you had the right mindset, when you had the psychological advantage,
“There is another state of mind where you are sure of what’s going to happen. You’re confident and it doesn’t matter if there are 7 seconds on the clock. You know it’s possible to win and you know someone will cover you. This state of mind was what allowed us to win a lot of rounds in a very difficult fashion.”
Marcelo “Coldzera” David also understood the ramifications of having the psychological edge. In the same interview, FalleN related an anecdote of a conversation he had with Coldzera the first time they were about to play the FaZe superteam in 2017,
“Coldzera said at the time, ‘The first match we play against them is the most important one. If we lose the first one, they will know they can beat us. Then it will start getting harder’.”
Nothing to fear
Retroactively, we can say that the Astralis Era ended at the Katowice Major. At that point in time, there was an aura of invincibility that surrounded the team that made their competitors believe they were impossible to beat. People could get into their own heads when playing against Astralis. For instance, in the post-finals breakdown, Nicolai “device” Reedtz talked about Andreas’ Xyp9x’s Hojsleth’s thoughts on winning the 1v2 against ENCE on Train,
“They know it’s Xyp, I’m the clutcher. They are nervous at this moment. So I’m going to stand at a stupid spot as they aren’t going to expect that.”
That aura of greatness slowly degraded over time. While Astralis won BLAST Sao Paulo, their extended break from playing in the big tournaments hurt their form. Their degrading form coupled with their break from big LANS let their competitors forgot their fear of Astralis while building up their own confidence. Then ENCE and FURIA broke any final remnants of that fear at BLAST Madrid and ECS Season 7 Finals.
While every team still respects Astralis, no one fears them. None of their competitors speaks of Astralis in the same hushed tones of reverence as they did in 2018.
Other factors to consider and what could have been
While the psychological edge is a critical component in Astralis’ fall from the number one spot, it isn’t the only factor to take into consideration. The AUG/Krieg meta has boosted other teams like ENCE (who use the AUG very well) or Liquid (who have Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, arguably the best AUG/Krief player in CS:GO). The meta also hurt Astralis’ tactics and their aggressive riflers like Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen and Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander. On the flipside of the equation, the AUG has since been nerfed and it hasn’t boosted Astralis back to where they were either.
In addition to that, teams have had over a year to study Astralis’ tactics, methods and process. In 2018, Astralis led the paradigm shift in everything, whereas now they are only one team among many. FInally, there has been a general decline of form in terms of teamplay.
Given all of these factors, it’s hard to know if Astralis could have continued their dominance in an alternate timeline where they continued to attend the bigger LANs. After all, Astralis were also burning out at the end of 2018 as they put everything into being the best while device was dealing with personal injuries and Dupreeh was dealing with a bereavement. Under those circumstances, it makes sense why Astralis decided to take time off and only attend BLAST events. But that has cost them their reign of terror and a part of me will always wonder what could have been.